The ability to use language is perhaps the most complex human cognitive ability. Decades of interdisciplinary work in cognitive science still leave scientists perplexed. Yet child learners manage to learn the ins and outs of a language within the first few years of life. The ultimate goal of my research is to contribute to solving this paradox of language acquisition (Jackendoff, 1994).

My primary focus is on word learning. Words are basic linguistic symbols. Their relations to the world, although conventionalized in a speech community, are fundamentally arbitrary. How do young learners "decipher" the meanings of these symbols –– which aspect of the world a word picks out (Quine, 1960)?

I am particularly interested in those "tough" words, whose meanings are much less transparent: verbs, event nominals, pronouns. In my investigation, I study the learner, the target language, and the input. I examine the learner's linguistic, conceptual, cognitive and social-communicative abilities, and compare neurodevelopmentally different learners. I examine how different properties of the target language shape learning. I also examine what cues are available in the input, how robust and rich they are, and whether input differences predict individual differences in learning.

Representative Work

He, A. X., & Arunachalam, S. (2017). Word Learning Strategies. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews on Cognitive Science, e1435. doi:10.1002/wcs.1435. Click HERE.

Check this out for a recent review on word learning!

He, A. X., & Lidz, J. (2017). Development of the verb-event link in 14- and 18-month-old English-learning infants.
Click HERE for final publisher version (limited copies). Click HERE for post-print (non-final).

de Carvalho A, He, A.X., Lidz J., & Christophe A. (under review). 18-month-olds use phrasal prosody and function words to constrain the acquisition of novel words.

Nouns name objects; verbs name events. Such correlations, though not deterministic, could be useful heuristics to get learning off the ground. These studies look at young infants' abilities to use morphosyntactic cues and prosodic cues to categorize novel nouns and verbs, and make inferences about their meanings accordingly.

He, A. X., & Arunachalam, A. (in prep). When nouns do not name objects: Toddlers’ acquisition of event nominal words.

Nouns name objects; verbs name events. These correlations are true for most words, but not all. Some nouns pick out event concepts; for example, 'nap' names an event of "napping", rather than an object like "bed" or "pillow". This line of work asks when and how child learners acquire the right meanings of these words.

He, A. X., Maxwell, K. & Arunachalam, S. (under revision). How much information is too much? Informativity and processing cost in verb learning.
He, A. X., & Lidz, J. (in prep). When one cue is better than two: The role of processing in novel verb learning and verb meaning extension.

The linguistic context where a verb occurs is a helpful source of information for the learner to identify the target event concept. But to make use of the linguistic context, the learner must be able to process it. Young learners' limited processing abilities may sometimes be a hindrance. These studies looks at the role of processing in verb learning.

Wellwood, A., He, A. X., Lidz, J. & Williams, A. (2015). Participant structure in event perception: Towards the acquisition of implicitly 3-place predicates. Proceedings of the 38th Annual Penn Linguistics Colloquium (PLC), 21(1). Philadelphia, PA: University if Pennsylvania. Click HERE for full text.
He, A. X., Wellwood, A., Lidz, J. & Williams, A. (in prep). Participant structure representation in infancy: A prelude to understanding the syntactic bootstrapping theory of verb learning.

To pick out the target event concept the adult speaker intends by a verb, the learner needs to construe the event in agreement with the adult's perspective. These studies look at prelinguistic infants' event construals, in comparison to adults'.

He, A. X., & Arunachalam, A. (in prep). Construal of event endstates in prelinguistic infants and adults.

This line of work looks at infants' and adults' construal of the endstates of events. This is a non-linguistic study, but may have important implications on the relation between event conceptualization and language acquisition, given that some languages lexicalize endstates in their verbs (e.g., English), whereas some may not (e.g., Japanese, Hindi, Tamil, Thai).

He, A. X., & Arunachalam, A. (in prep). ”It’s in my/your box”: Comprehension of personal pronouns’ reference shifting in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Pronouns are hard, because their referents keep shifting depending on the discourse roles. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have notable difficulties in pronoun productions. How about their comprehension? Do they understand that "I" can refer to someone other than their mother and "you" can refer to someone other than themselves? How do their social-communicative abilities affect their pronoun comprehension? This line of work attempts to address these questions.

He, A. X., & Arunachalam, A. (in prep). Mothers also avoid using pronouns? Pronouns in maternal input to infants at high- vs. low-risk for autism spectrum disorder.

Mothers are known to tailor their choices of linguistic means to the child's language development level. This work reveals interestingly different patterns of referential expression choices in two groups of mothers: mothers of infants at high-risk for ASD tend to use fewer second person pronouns when referring to their child, in comparison to mothers of low-risk infants.

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